From time to time I receive inquiries into the possibility of connecting someone to an apprenticeship under a Japanese swordsmith. Most recently I was asked my opinion of the issue in an online forum and ended up compiling several of my responses and thoughts into a longer answer there. In the interest of making this content accessible to a wider community, I have included the content below, edited for clarity, along with some quotes and links for further exploration. Though the tone may come across as discouraging to some, this article is rather intended to be an honest and direct preparation for the realities involved in successful cross-cultural apprenticeship.
The relationship between master and apprentice is personal, and for life. It is not that of a teacher and his student, for the master isn’t expected to teach anything. It is rather expected of the apprentice that he assimilates as much knowledge as possible while he shares his master’s life.
The best example we have for a foreigner undertaking a full swordsmithing apprenticeship in Japan is the experience of Pierre Nadeau from Canada. He spent about a decade living and working in Japan and apprenticed under licensed Japanese swordsmiths until late 2011 when he moved back to Canada. His article on this topic offers detailed and specific information far beyond the scope of this article and is required reading for any considering a similar path.
As an example of the patience required for the traditional apprenticeship path, the first four years in Japan was not spent as as apprentice, but simply learning the culture and language while building relationships with those involved in the swordsmithing world.
Upon completion of his final test he will become one of only a couple of non-Japanese in history to stick out a full apprenticeship and pass the requirements to work as a licensed swordsmith in Japan. Keith Austin was another. Pierre is currently constructing his new forge in Canada and should be up and running again in a few months.
There are many paths to becoming a skilled maker and not everyone can handle the rigors of the Japanese way. The first question to self-reflect upon is why exactly one wants to become a swordsmith in Japan. I think one of the reasons Pierre was able to persevere is because he was attracted to the working style, the shokunin discipline and approach, rather than to the sword itself. Most of the life of a ‘smith does not involve a sword but long hard hours spent with a piece of steel that gradually begins to resemble a sword just before it is sent away to be polished and finished. Starting an apprenticeship today would mean you would not forge a sword for the next seven years, and hardly work on even a part of making a sword for the next four or five years!
What’s important is your very personality. Are you honest? Because a dishonest person — at every level of the expression — cannot possibly do good work. Are you patient? Because patience will be necessary for you to keep going when the fog of your enthusiasm will clear, leaving only sweat, bodily pains and boredom as companions on your journey. Are you inspired? Because a dull mind cannot make bright work. Are you a quick, intuitive learner? It’s not because one is taught that one learns. Are you ready to sacrifice? It doesn’t matter whether you think you are or not, the question is “are you?”.
No matter how skilled one is when entering an apprenticeship, every bit of information must be treated as brand new. For one will always find new and different details when open to another’s input. I think that traditional apprenticeship is not so much about the technical skills (though this is a very important component in time) but more about learning to submit to the internal and external discipline that it takes to work through the difficulties and challenges (mainly personal, but also cultural) and to develop the proper attitudes toward self, skill, craftsmanship, and life along the journey to being a skilled artisan. These things can become the stumbling blocks for many who travel to Japan to attempt this path, especially those of us from North America with our ideas of independence and the tendency to seek shortcut paths to success.
In the following quote, Pierre is speaking specifically about the selection process and desired qualities for an apprentice, but in a larger context he is also speaking of the cultural perspective on the importance of effort as a major contributor to success, how someone who thinks of themselves more highly than they ought is liable to fall into trouble due to a false sense of pride whereas someone of moderate ability who continues to walk the path can eventually excel.
“What is important is the apprentice’s attitude and commitment. Japanese don’t care about natural talents, they see it as a weakness sometimes, because he who is naturally good tends to make less efforts than he who is poor with his hands. They consider that anyone who puts the right amount of effort will get there sometimes. Of course, the best of the best is he who has natural talent and puts in an infinite amount of efforts.”
“…my best affinity with Japan was my attitude towards work: caring for details, quality, working simply to produce masterpieces, working intuitively, being aware of my whole self in the process of creation. All this is natural in Japan, but raises eyebrows in the West.”
Cultural tensions can be difficult to navigate as westerners often have quite different concepts of appropriate ways of interacting and responding. More specifically the “will power” behind the “want to” often runs out much sooner and looks for its source in the “want to” rather than the “decided to” or “committed to”.
Choosing the right deshi is very important to a Japanese master because the apprenticeship program involves a great deal of trust. The master’s investment of time, expense, and energy into the deshi only begins to pay off in the last couple of years when their skill level approaches journeyman. Unfortunately this is often about the time when a westerner decides they don’t need any more “teaching” and wants to set off on their own leaving the master short for all of his input and worse, dishonored by a broken commitment.
The apprenticeship relationship is rather like a marriage in some ways. Spending much time with another person and making a commitment not to walk out early, not focused on “getting” but more about “giving” (an apprentice should have the mentality of serving the master and increasing his business rather than simply taking his knowledge).
“Also it is important to be aware that apprenticeship has no salary whatsoever and a great deal of cost to both the apprentice and the teacher. After traveling expenses, apprentices must face the cost of long hours and much effort for knowledge that will only be profitable after many years, if ever. For the teacher, he faces the cost of time invested in instruction, as well as the cost of fuel burned and tool wear once the apprentice is ready begin learning firsthand. Generally this debt to one’s teacher is repaid by doing whatever chores the teacher requires or by other efforts. However, all too often apprentices lose sight of this debt and the giving becomes one-sided; such relationships are always destined for failure.”
Where to Start
Depending on whether the chosen path involves full immersion or some preparatory self-directed study, some first steps might include spending a great deal of time studying the history, lines, and nuances of classical blades (stick with antiques and legit smiths) online and in museums will begin to develop your eye for those minute details that can make or break the Japanese aesthetic. There are also many base skills that can be developed before seeking instruction (hammering, filing, basic forging, bladesmithing, muscle memory and stamina). In North America, a sword smithing course from Pierre or related experience through Tamahagane Arts may be a good place to start formally learning as well as a making a connection to Japan.
Taking an extended trip or two to Japan, preferably spending a year there working some menial job while seriously studying language is one way to understand the nature of work and life in Japan before committing to seven or more as an apprentice. This will also provide opportunities to make local connections in meaningful and lasting ways. If this is a true life path, spending all the time that it takes to do it right is the best way anyways!
Acting the part. If you already behave as an apprentice (doing your homework without being told or asked, learning the language, customs and manners, keeping your focus straight, no matter what you’re told, always being available and serviceable but not demanding, etc), it will feel natural to accept you.
Taking the time to build relationships. A total stranger cannot become the apprentice of a total stranger. The implications are just too great to make such moves.
Pierre has some helpful outsider’s insider thoughts on the issue of apprenticeship:
and touches on some of the cultural concepts of the Japanese apprentice system here:
Japanese swordsmith Fusataro~san offers some insider’s insider info to consider:
Though this is about polisher’s apprenticeship there are some glimpses into the structure and daily life as well as some of the thought processes involved in the journey:
An Update From Pierre Via Email
I couldn’t have replied any better on the board.
There are actually two reasons why apprenticeship nearby the source of the tradition is important:
– You need a model: you can’t be reinventing the wheel, so you need to see all the tricks and tips accumulated over centuries
– You need a model: you can’t be making wine if you’ve never tasted it, or you might make something entirely different
…forward on the journey toward excellence! がんばって！
How to chop charcoal:
How to swing a mukozuchi (striker’s hammer):